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For What It's Worth

A classic Viking hoard. Note at in the foreground the silver pennies, doubtlessly Anglo-Saxon, with some cut in half into half-pennies and other cut further into farthings
*A Viking Silver Hoard

One question the public seem to love asking members of Regia is "How much was it worth?" It doesn't matter whether it's a sword or a buckle, they always seem to want to know the cost.

Working out how much something was worth in an economy based largely on barter (even if a common coinage was available) is not easy, even in contemporary relative terms, let alone with a modern equivalent. However, that is what I am going to try and do in this article, if only in very general terms. One thing to bear in mind is that some items varied in value considerably, depending on what part of Europe you were in, so sometimes several values will be given for the same item. We must also bear in mind that the few sources we have available date anywhere from the seventh to eleventh century, so there might be some variation in price with time.

The Sources

Most of the information we have comes from written laws, particularly the laws written down in the reigns of Ine and Alfred, where an average or rough 'replacement value' for an item would be given (although we do also have many fines that could be imposed too). However, we do also have a few references to actual 'retail prices' for some items, particularly from some of the Frankish sources.

What Was Money Worth?

This might seem like an odd question, but the value of money in Early Medieval Britain was quite a variable thing. In its simplest form Early English money was divided into pounds, shillings and pence. Unfortunately the subdivisions were not the same as our pre-decimal coinage. The pound was the Troy pound (approx. 11.5 modern ounces or 373g) divided into 240 pennies (making a Saxon penny about 1.55g). To make matters even more complicated, the shilling did not have a constant value, varying from 4-6 pence, not the more recent 12 pence. For the purpose of this article I will be figuring a shilling to be worth an average 5 pence (48 shillings to the pound). Of course, the pound itself referred to a pound of silver. An this is the point to mention that when Ethelred was paying off the Vikings with their 'Danegeld', he was doing so in pounds weight of silver, not in pounds cost. Which then goes on to demonstrate how wealthy England was at this time, because it was a practice that occurred over a 22 year period on and off. No wonder the Vikings kept coming. And even after all this asset stripping, England was still worth taking control of, just as Cnut did in 1016.

All of this explanation is an over-simplification of how Saxon coinage worked, but I'll let someone with far more knowledge of Numismatics than myself write a more detailed article on that particular subject (hint, hint).

Having got a rough idea of how the coinage worked, we need to work out how much that was worth in modern terms. An obvious solution might seem to be to use the bullion value of silver today, giving a silver penny a value of about 25 - 30p and a pound of silver a value of about 60 - 72. However, the relative value of silver today is in fact far lower than in early medieval times. There are several other ways of working out relative values such as the 'ale standard' or soldier's rates of pay, or many others. The theory behind the ale standard is that even since the dawn of the paid soldier, whether with coin or barter, the price of a pint of ale has remained in relative terms the same. Another theory follows the same reasoning that the price of bread has also stayed constant in relative terms to the wages that a warrior or soldier would have demanded.

Depending on which figures you use you can get a figure of a Saxon penny being worth anything from 10 - 200, although most methods give a figure in the range of 20 - 50, so for the purposes of this article I will demonstrate using the following (low) conversion rates: 1 Saxon silver penny = 20, 1 shilling = 100 and 1 pound = 4800. Again this is an oversimplification, but accurate enough for the purposes of this article.

Costs

In the following tables I will give the value in Early English pounds (l), shillings (s) or pence (d), weight of silver (g) and modern pounds sterling ()

After each item I will note whether the price comes from Britain [B], Western Europe [W], Central Europe [C], Northern Europe [N] or Eastern Europe [E].

Livestock

Item Price Weight Modern
15 chickens [C] 1d 1.55g 20
Cow [E] 64.5d 100g 1,290
Cow [C] 88.5d 137g 1,770
Ewe and Lamb [B] 1s 8g

100

Ox [E] 80.5d 125g 1,610
Ox [C] 88.5d 137g 1,770
Pig [E] 20d 30g 600
Sheep [E] 10d 15g 300
Fledged Peregrine Falcon [B] 1l 372g 4,800
Fledged Sparrow Hawk [B] 24d 37g 480
Foreigner's Lap Dog [B] 4d 6g 80
Freeholder's Buck Hound [B] 120d 186g 2,400
Freeman's Lap Dog [B] 120d 186g 2,400
Hawk's nest (Peregrine) [B] 1l 372g 4,800
Sparrow Hawk Nest [B] 24d 37g 480
Unfledged Peregrine Falcon [B] 120d 186g 2,400
Unfledged Sparrow Hawk [B] 12d 18g 240
Virgin Swarm of Bees [B] 16d 25g 320
Swarm of bees from a second swarm [B] 8d 12g 160
Swarm of bees from Virgin swarm [B] 12d 18g 240
Hive of Bees [B] 24d 37g 480
Hive swarm after august [B] 4d 6g 80
Old Swarm of Bees [B] 24d 37g 480
Second Swarm of Bees [B] 12d 18g 240
Horse [E] 193.5d 300g 3,870
Horse [N] 197.5d 306g 3,950
Horse [C] 308.5d 478g 6,170
King's Greyhound [B] 120d 186g 2,400
King's Hunting Dog, trained [B] 1l 372g 4,800
King's Hunting Dog, untrained [B] 120d 186g 2,400
King's Hunting Dog, 1 yr old [B] 60d 93g 1,200
King's Hunting Dog, young [B] 30d 46g 600
King's Hunting Dog, Dog, pup with unopened eyes [B] 15d 23g 300
King's Lap Dog [B] 1l 372g 4,800
Common House Dog [B] 4d 6g 80
Stranger's or Dunghill Dog [B] 4d 6g 80
Male Slave [N] 197.5d 306g 3,950
Female Slave [E] 131.5d 204g 2,630

Arms and Armour

Item Price Weight Modern
Helmet [C] 53s 410g 5,300
Mailshirt [C] 529d 820g 10,580
Shield and Spear [C] 88.5d 137g 1,770
Spear [W] 33d 51g 660
Sword [W] 81.25d 126g 1,625
Sword [B] 240s 1860g 24,000
Sword and Scabbard [C] 308.5d 478g 6,170

Fines, etc.

Item Price Weight Modern
Accepting service of another's ceorl [B] 120s 930g 12,000
Ceorl seeking new lord [B] 60s 465g 6,000
Binding an innocent ceorl [B] 10s 77g 1,000
Binding an innocent ceorl and shaving him like a priest [B] 60s 465g 6,000
Fighting (not in war) [B] 120s 930g 12,000
Ceorl entering into illicit union [B] 50s 387g 5,000
Thegn entering into illicit union [B] 100s 775g 10,000
Ceorl neglecting fyrd duty [B] 30s 232g 3,000
Failure to perform fyrd duty [B] 40-50s 310-387g 4,000-5,000
Landless thegn neglecting fyrd duty [B] 60s 465g 6,000
Thegn neglecting fyrd duty[B] 120s 930g 12,000 (+ land)
Danegeld paid between 990-1015 [B] 250,000l+ 93,000kg+ 1,200,000,000+
Freeman working on Sunday [B] 60s 465g 6,000
Ordering a slave to work on Sunday [B] 30s 232g 3,000
Priest working on Sunday [B] 120s 930g 12,000
Raping a female slave [B] 65s 504g 6,500
Holding a woman's breast [B] 5s 39g 500
Seducing a free woman [B] 60s 465g 6,000
Throw a woman down but not lie with her [B] 10s 77g 1,000
Not baptising child within 30 days of birth [B] 30s 232g 3,000
Removing a nun from a nunnery without permission [B] 120s 930g 12,000
Reward for catching thief [B] 10s 77g 1,000
Violation of an archbishop's protection [B] 3l 1,116g 14,400
Violation of bishop/eolderman's protection [B] 2l 744g 9,600
Violation of ceorl's protection [B] 6s 46g 600
Violation of church's protection [B] 50s 387g 5,000
Violation of the king's protection[B] 5l 1,860g 24,000
Note: There were many other fines, but including them all would take up too much space.
What is clear, though, is that in Anglo-Saxon England what was most important was not what you did, but who you did it to.

Weregilds

Item Price Weight Modern
Slave [B] 60s 465g 6,000
Ceorl [B] 200s 1550g 20,000
Landless Thegn [B] 600s 4650g 60,000
Thegn [B] 1200s 9300g 120,000
Landless Welsh [B] 50s 387g 5,000
Landed Welsh with 1/2 Hide [B] 80s 620g 8,000
Welsh tribute payer (1 hide) [B] 120s 930g 12,000
Welsh tribute payer's son [B] 80s 620g 8,000
King's Welsh Horseman [B] 200s 1550g 20,000
Welsh with 5 hides [B] 600s 4650g 60,000

Miscellaneous

Item Price Weight Modern
1kg Corn [W] 2d 3g 40
Bridle [W] 6.5d 10g 130
Spurs [W] 13d 20g 400
Stirrups [W] 81.25d 126g 1,625
Buckle [W] 3.25d 5g 65
Cloak [N] 7.75d 12g 155
Cow eye [B] 1d 1.5g 20
Cow horn [B] 2d 3g 40
Cow Tail [B] 5d 8g 100
Ox Eye [B] 5d 8g 100
Ox Horn [B] 10d 15g 200
Ox Tail [B] 1s 8g 100
Fleece [B] 2d 3g 40
Beaver Skin [B] 120d 186d 2,400
Fox skin [B] 8d 12g 160
Marten Skin [B] 24d 37g 480
Otter skin [B] 8d 12g 160
Wolf skin [B] 8d 12g 160
Fyrdsman's pay/month [B] 10s 77g 1,000
Hide of land (approx. 120 acres) [B] 1l 372g 4,800
Land tax/hide [B] 2s 15g 200
Knife [W] 2d 3g 40
Silk (1oz) [E] 37d 57g 740

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